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Cat power


Forgive Jack Warner's Shikar its shortcomings. Look past the dreadful dust jacket, with the clip-art Photoshopped tiger and bargain-book title font. Excuse the first-time author's sometimes clunky phrasing, and give his improbable premise a fair shake. Once you're in the spirit of charity, you'll find Shikar to be an engrossing little thriller -- the kind of book that'll make you skip dinner and stay up past bedtime to see what happens next.

The action takes place over two autumn months in fictional Harte County, Ga., a rural outpost at the start of the Appalachian Trail. Grady Brickhouse, a popular sheriff in an area known for attracting fall leaf-lookers from Atlanta, faces an unusual killer when locals start turning up mangled and dismembered. We know from a mood-setting prologue in India that the culprit is a man-eating Bengal tiger, accidentally set loose in the Georgia wilderness by a band of smugglers.

The author clearly knows how to get the heart rate accelerated, and scenes that pit various victims against the stealthy beast evoke early Stephen King. If the story of a small-town sheriff vs. flesh-hungry monster sounds familiar, it should: The first several chapters feel a lot like Peter Benchley's Jaws, but with a Southern flavor. The author makes the formula a bit more complicated by adding a Rudyard Kipling-inspired twist. The tiger, it turns out, has befriended a feral boy in the woods.

Warner, a former Atlanta reporter who retired after a 14-year run at the AJC, moved with his wife to New Mexico in the late '90s. Hints of the author's past vocation do show up in the novel, as in the newspaper delivery woman who's the carnivore's first victim. But overall this is your classic man-vs.-nature tale with a compelling psychological undercurrent.

So ditch the dust jacket. Make yourself a sandwich. Grab this tiger by the tail and be prepared for a rousing ride.

Jack Warner reads and signs Shikar July 18 at 6:30 p.m. at Manuel's Tavern, 602 N. Highland Ave. 404-525-3447.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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